If ever I’m quiet on the blog, it’s usually because I’m not doing anything of particular interest. The past couple of weeks have been no exception. I got back from my hectic three week sprint across New Zealand, and holed up in Melbourne once again, now jobless, to wait for my friend Meg to get back from the Philippines so the next adventure could begin.
Being jobless in Melbourne is not easy. In Melbourne, there are many and varied ways to spend a lot of money, very quickly. Luckily, thanks to several lovely people letting me crash on their sofas, and friends working in hospitality kindly providing me with free alcohol on occasion, I made it through without burning too large a hole in my savings. It was a fun couple of weeks, despite not doing anything blog-worthy: I basically felt like I’d come home, to friends and familiarity. While in New Zealand every couple of days we uprooted and went somewhere new, Melbourne is comfortable, and comforting: I know where I’m going, and I have friends who don’t complain too much when I make them accompany me to every available second hand market and festival.
So those two weeks passed pretty quickly, and before I knew it Meg had arrived back and we had to actually come up with a plan. In all honesty, even now a week into the trip, there hasn’t been much planning involved: it’s more of a live day-by-day kind of deal.
But rewind. So here’s the (vague) idea. We’re going to head west, aiming roughly for Perth. No particular time limit; very meagre budget. Bought an (outrageously cheap) car, with camping gear, in Adelaide. It’s all very exciting.
FYI, the distance between Adelaide and Perth is 2,693km – by the most direct route.
We are not going the most direct route. It is pretty damn far.
So the past week has positively sprinted by. We had a few days in Adelaide before we set off on our little side trip, our practice run before the Great Western Road Trip. We had to sort boring things like transferring over the car registration to my name, buying the things that were still missing from the extensive pile of stuff that came with the car… and also being reunited with some Aussie friends that I first met when I went inter railing in Europe, five years ago. Actually, that part was pretty fun.
Staying in their house was surreal. Our friendship, initially sparked by the mutual need for a bottle opener, has actually only seen us spend a total of about three weeks in each other’s’ company. Yet here I am, five years on, crashing in their front room.
I guess sometimes, with some people, you just know that you’re going to get on. Even Meg, after spending all of a couple of hours with them, said that she felt like she’d known them for years.
We said a brief goodbye, knowing we’d be back in a few days’ time to take advantage of their limitless hospitality (in particular their warm comfy mattress-bed and heaps of blankets), and set off for a test-run of the car and camping equipment.
A five day road trip awaited: along the iconic Great Ocean Road and then up to the Grampians national park. Five days, largely consisting of rain and freezing cold temperatures. Five days of waking up to a new campsite every day: beachfront, waves sighing across the shore, and forest, kangaroo spotting from the tent zip-door. Cooking on our one-ring gas stove. Numb feet and fingers. Beaches and paths to ourselves. Clear skies and campfires; stars beyond anything you’ve ever seen. Hunkering down in the front seats of the car while a lightning storm raged around us, forking its way down into the nearby fields and illuminating the night brighter than a camera flash.
By the way, I’m trying this new thing where I write about things as they actually are, not edited, filtered, rose-tinted, after I wrote this article about how travel is often portrayed as something it’s not.
Day one saw us set off late (inevitable) and arrive to Mount Gambier in the dark (classic) after all the campsites had closed their gates for the night (typical). The day began with a probable speeding ticket (at least, we saw a speed camera flash and it might have been us, okay, me). We’d had a slightly hectic organisation-filled morning with some quick sightseeing thrown in, and we were in a bit of a rush to get going. Turns out it’s a pretty long way to Mount Gambier.
Meg and I split the driving and she unfortunately ended up with the worst half. Pouring rain, pitch dark, lorries rumbling past frequently enough that the wipers were going full throttle to clear the windscreen of their spray. Sorry Meg. Well done, though.
I did my best to improve the situation with platitudes like, ‘Well, at least we’re nearly there now.’ Don’t think it helped much.
Still, we arrived in one piece, and with much relief. Until we drove around to a few of the campsites we’d found on WikiCamps, only to discover that they were all closed.
So to summarise day one of the practice road trip:
- Set off late
- Possibly got speeding ticket before actually leaving Adelaide
- Got caught in an epic downpour; slowed to snail pace
- Arrived to destination in the dark
- Failed to realise that campsites in winter close hella early (unless you book, which of course we did not)
- Kipped in the car on a side street
Not a great start. But in all honesty we had a bloody hilarious day. And sleeping in the car was surprisingly comfortable (though as I later learned, the passenger side is a hell of a lot more comfortable than the driver’s side. None of those pedals, or that pesky steering wheel).
We awoke to a car all steamed up and a feeling of mild panic, worrying that someone might come round to tell us off (or possibly fine us? The law ain’t that clear) for sleeping in our vehicle. There’s nothing like the fear of repercussion to wake you right up in the morning.
We headed up to Mount Gambier’s famous blue lake for a morning stroll, and got a dose of fresh air as well as a tonne of pictures of an unfortunately not-very-blue lake (it’s mainly blue in summer). After that, off we went to hit the Great Ocean Road.
Having heard so much about it, from friends, from advertising in tour shops, from Facebook and from Google, I was kind of expecting it to be a bit of a disappointment. But it was one of those rare occasions when the reality was actually better than the hype.
Since I’ve been in Australia, this weird thing has happened where I’ve started to love driving itself. Driving is no longer just a way of getting there. Now it’s a contributing factor to the fun.
This from a girl who still finds it a bit bizarre (and terrifying) that I am a real adult who is allowed to drive a motorised vehicle, on roads with other people and everything.
The Great Ocean Road is basically just a really lovely drive. Long, meandering roads winding through beautiful coastal scenery, the sea never too far away. Every so often you reach a point in the road – the crest of a slope or the apex of a curve – and you literally cannot stop the ‘Wow’ from escaping your lips.
The route is overly touristified, of course. Every stop worthy of note is signposted in good time. Busloads of people are shuttled from stop to stop (and there are many stops); most of the lookout points are blockaded by large groups of people taking selfies or group pictures (and sometimes selfies in group pictures); the 12 Apostles has to be reached via an underpass because the car park is so big that it has to be the other side of the road. But it’s with good reason.
We didn’t make it to every stop along the way. (We’ve learnt our lesson and now aim to get to our campsites before nightfall). But those we did take the time to see were pretty breath-taking. Nature is awesome.
Once we’d had our fill of taking pictures of large bits of rock, we made our way over to Apollo Bay, and our first campsite of the trip. This was our first and only paid night of accommodation ($16 / £10 each!) but boy was it worth it. Our pitch was mere metres from the sea front. We went to sleep curled up under the duvet (and several layers of clothing) with the sound of waves washing ashore, and awoke to parrots having a very noisy conversation in a nearby tree. It was pretty magical (but did I mention it was cold?).
That day was leisurely: we went for a walk along the beach path in Apollo Bay, and then returned to reluctantly pack up our stuff and carry on along the Great Ocean Road as far as Lorne. This stretch of the road is usually considered the most beautiful section, and it is: driving like an arcade game, like a simulator; up and down hills and on roads hugging the cliffs. Short, but oh so sweet.
After a brief stop in Lorne, we headed up to a cute little free camping spot about ten minutes up the road. Reports said that there were koalas up in the trees nearby: disappointingly, our thorough (five minute) search turned up none. But it was a nice enough spot to pass the night, despite the inevitable rain, and the resultant damp tent (and consequent damp mood).
The next couple of days were spent breezing through the Grampians, ft. more rain, a bit of hiking, and progressively better free camp sites. The night we spent in the south saw us rock up to our camp for the night only to be faced with a family of kangaroos. A surreal surprise. And I know that everybody thinks that kangaroos are awesome and cuddly, but man, if you’ve ever been stared out by a big mumma roo, I defy you not to be a little bit terrified. Walking around that campsite I did feel a bit like I had to keep looking over my shoulder.
That night we also had our first attempt at a campfire, with very limited success. I’ll blame the damp wood, and neglect to mention the fact that we were given a generous number of firelighters by a nice man who took pity on us.
The next day we were off up north, stopping off for a brief hike up a very windy Mount William, then up to the Balconies rock formation, which I’d seen previously on an overnight trip from Melbourne.
The campsite we stayed in that night was easily the best of the free campsites we’ve seen so far. So large that it had different lettered sections. It had more than one set of toilets. It had a shower!!!!!!
(OK, a pole with a bucket on it, but still).
We decided to sleep in the car for the night. The tent is great and all, but it is a bit oppressively cold and wet after a few nights in a row, and by then our main priority was warmth. But we set up the tent anyway, as more of a living room space/dining room/card playing area. And it was actually very pleasant – the weather was even dry and clear-skied, for once. I was beginning to regret the decision not to camp out.
And then a flash of lightening lit up the whole tent.
Needless to say, the cards were hastily gathered up, the duvet shoved into the front seat, the tent dismantled and the chairs stowed in the boot. I don’t think I’ve ever moved so fast. By the time the first raindrops started to fall, we were installed, breathlessly, in the front of the car, ready to watch the show. And what a show! Rain, wind, hailstones – and a hell of a lot of lightning. It was better than a drive-in movie. It carried on for so long that it went from being a spectacular display to a distraction from sleep.
And that’s the night I discovered that the driver’s seat was a lot less comfortable than the passenger’s side.
The day after that, we high-tailed it back to Adelaide. Back along the boring inland highways, unfortunately. We passed through plenty of toy towns and weirdly-named places (anyone fancy a stop in Keith?), but a few minutes passing through on a several hour drive isn’t going to keep anyone awake for long. Even so, after several hours of eye-drooping and almost-nodding heads, we made it back to the familiar mess of Caitlin and Henry’s house, and settled back into the indoor life with a Domino’s.
A good practice run for the next few weeks. Lessons learned:
- driving in the dark ain’t fun
- we need a tonne more warm clothing
- the road trip playlist needs at least three times more songs than it currently has
- never underestimate the luxury of a roof over your head
I can’t wait for the rest.
Adelaide – Mount Gambier – Apollo Bay – Lorne – Grampians National Park – Adelaide
Driving time: 19 hours